Virginie de Mestral

Virginie de Mestral grew up locally in Switzerland, going to high school in Morges before continuing to EPFL to study Materials Science and Engineering. She did the third year of her bachelor’s degree at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and then her master’s back at EPFL. Though she wasn’t totally sure what it was all about, she decided to focus on computational sciences because it sounded quite interesting. She took a number of courses in the field, but continued with experimental projects as well, and now finds herself doing her master’s thesis in the ETH group of Prof. Mathieu Luisier in collaboration with the start-up Lumiphase, active in the area of silicon photonic devices. Virginie loves to feel free and express this within the arts, such as dance and music. She has also been doing a lot of handicrafts and drawings. Human relationships are also very important to her, as are animal relationships and so she spends quite a lot of time with her family, friends and dog. She also took the time to help NCCR MARVEL promote the INSPIRE Potentials program with a film that you can see here

Interview by Carey Sargent, EPFL, NCCR MARVEL

Have you always been interested in science?

That’s a big yes. I’ve always been curious about understanding how nature works. Although it’s difficult to understand exactly how nature works, it’s easier to observe and then to notice patterns and notice the logic of certain behaviors and the lack of logic of other behaviors. Science has always been very present in my family. My two sisters are in biology. We were always allowed to, and actually stimulated, to ask questions whenever we had them and I’m really thankful for that. I think it played a really important role. 

How did you hear about the INSPIRE Potentials Program?

I was a student with Nicola Marzari. I took solid state physics with him and computational materials science and did a master’s project in his lab.  Nicola told me that I could apply for this fellowship, that he thought I’d be a good match. At that point, I wanted to do something different, I wanted to go more into experimental sciences for my master’s thesis and I wanted to go to the U.S. I thought that six months would be good, I wouldn’t have to stay for a full PhD program of four years in the U.S., it would just be a quick journey in a way. I sort of knew that I wanted to go into the direction of computational sciences later and so I wanted to try something else before. Everything was ready, I had fellowships, I had the visa, I had the national interest exception because it was during the time of COVID and a few weeks before going, it was cancelled because of COVID. At that moment, I went back to Nicola because I had a few other opportunities in Switzerland and I wanted some advice from him. He reminded me of the INSPIRE program and thanks to this fellowship I was able to do my master’s thesis in Zurich. I couldn’t afford it otherwise and should have stayed at EPFL. The start-up in which I did my master’s internship was in contact with a professor at ETH that was part of MARVEL and so everything worked together. They asked, “are you still interested in working with us, would you like to continue doing something more fundamental?” and that’s how it happened.

I’d like to thank the people who set up this program very much. The reason I went into the direction of the topic I chose is because I knew it was important and knew it would give me more freedom and adaptability than either computational sciences or experimental sciences exclusively. And computational sciences in relation to materials sciences was sort of the jackpot because it was including physics, which I love, and also a very practical way of experimenting. By that I mean that if I want to investigate something or get deeper knowledge into some theory, I can test it out pretty much right away. If I wanted to do an experiment, I would have to set it up, get the funds for that—though I’m not saying that computational time and energy doesn’t cost anything—but it might take a month to set up and then I would have to find the right people as well. With this, I can just discuss with the people, just ask the right questions. We have a lot of freedom. It’s very stimulating and motivating. I’m really thankful for that. 

What was the topic of your master’s project?

I am studying the optoelectronic properties of barium titanate, which is used as a high frequency phase modulator in silicon photonics, from first principles. The first idea was to try to elaborate a generalized method that could reproduce the opto-electronic properties of barium titanate as close as possible to the experimental values. This is already a big challenge because though it has been done in the past, the problem is that we cannot take into account the temperature in the codes I’m using. Because I’m working for this company, they want to get concrete results that are within 5 to 10 % accuracy. The first thing was just to try to reproduce it and the second thing and the reason why we want to compute them from a theoretical perspective is to try then later to introduce defects and to understand how things evolve. 

Do women face specific challenges in the sciences? 

For sure they do. What if you become pregnant, you can’t work full time, you can work partially, but not the whole time. So, you need to think about these kinds of issues as well, or how to plan the future, if you want a family or not. That for me is the biggest question I have. I personally didn’t face too many issues during my studies. Maybe I just didn’t want to look?  

Any advice for young girls interested in the field?

Maybe one other thing that makes a difference if I come back to the previous question is that there are not a lot of representativity of women in science—there are not a lot of role models. I would say that it’s important to know that there are some and to discuss with them and ask them questions, “How did you do it? How is it for you?” to see that it is feasible. To just see that you need to get organized and be aware of the limits. In a way, everyone has their own limits, so communication is very important. I also noticed, being a teaching assistant in many courses, that a lot of girls would ask me questions about the topic, and the next question would be “but what If I don’t manage to do this, what should I do next, what happens then?” This happens very often. In a way, they were spending more energy thinking about what would happen if they couldn’t solve the problem rather than the problem itself. And this can cause some anxieties if you keep thinking about what will happen if you can’t manage to solve a problem instead of focusing your whole energy on the problem. I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen with males too, I just got the question more from the girls. Knowing this, I think introspection can help, but knowing that while we may try to look ahead, we should try to focus on what we have in front of us right now and on what we want to do. 

What are your plans for the future?

I will continue with a PhD in the laboratory of Prof. Luisier at ETHZ, still in collaboration with the company I’ve been working with during my Master Thesis. That will keep me busy for the next four years and I have to say that I’m very much looking forward to working on the forthcoming challenges!